How to Discover Your Life Purpose, Set a Primary Goal, and Stay On Track

Unless you are the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings, you’ll probably need to pick just one goal at a time.

In my last post I wrote about why I think setting goals is important. I addressed some of my own reservations regarding goal-setting. Is ambitious goal-setting selfish? Is it obnoxious and annoying to others?

I suggest you read that post first. But if you’re ready to get into the details, my five step system for exploring life purpose and setting a primary goal is below.

It’s a long post, but it’s the whole deal. I’ve come to this system after decades of diversions and hard-won experience. So get a fresh cup of coffee, and welcome to my world.

Step 1: Soul-Searching, Purpose & Calling

Seneca’s reputation may suffer as a result of self-promotion guru Tim Ferriss quoting him so much. But before the Seneca backlash is in full swing, I’ll get this relevant quote in:

“Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.”
- Seneca

These concepts have different meanings, but with significant overlap:

  • life purpose
  • calling
  • raison d’être
  • ikigai

You can ask yourself different questions to spiral in on an answer that resonates to your core. For example, you could ask yourself:

  • Why am I here?
  • What is my reason for being?
  • How do I best use my strengths in the service of the greatest good?

The point is not to think yourself into a state of existential angst, nor to unearth some divine universal truth. The point of asking yourself questions like that is to find an answer that makes your heart sing.

As Steve Pavlina points out, when you read your own purpose statement to yourself, it should have an intense emotional impact.

Where does that answer come from? Your subconscious mind? God? The universe? I’m an atheist, so I’ll choose the first answer, but our cosmological beliefs don’t really matter in this case.

At the moment my own answer to these questions is as follows:

Live well and help others live well, create “true to self” works that educate, inspire, and/or entertain.

My “purpose statement” has been relatively stable for a number of years, though sometimes I reevaluate and make sure it still rings true, and sometimes I change the phrasing a bit (you can see a previous iteration in this post if you’re curious). I’m highlighting the evolution because I think it’s important to understand that a “life purpose” isn’t some kind of crystallized statement handed down from on high. It’s just a string of words … but hopefully a string of words that deeply resonates in your heart.

“Live well and help others live well” covers a lot. It reminds me to make life better when I have a choice (as opposed to suffering and being resentful), and to help others do the same. It reminds me to use whatever gifts I have to make other people’s lives better.

“Create ‘true to self’ works that educate, inspire, and/or entertain” reminds me to follow my muses and not fear the weird that is inside of me, to not pander or chase trends, but also to attempt to skillfully connect with audiences in ways that are meaningful. The “and/or” is awkward, but I don’t think every creative work can or should attempt to educate, inspire, AND entertain (though some writers, like David Mitchell, can pull it off).

The statement serves as my anchor when I come up against question marks in life (like, “what should I do next?” which comes up quite frequently for a self-employed creative type with a preference for shorter projects).

I guess you could consider this kind of soul-searching to be dangerous, if you’re uncomfortable in your current life. You might end up changing something big, which could be painful (even if it’s for the best in the long run).

For some, the process of trying to define a life purpose or calling sounds ridiculous, or self-indulgent, or unnecessary. Maybe you prefer to not think too carefully about who you serve. Or maybe you prefer to follow the path of least resistance and do only what society is willing to pay you for. Or maybe things are so intense in your life that you just don’t have the bandwidth to think “big picture” right now.

Fair enough. You can lead a horse to water …

I’ll just say this — if you haven’t taken the time to understand and define your own purpose in life, why set goals at all? If you don’t know where you’re going, “no wind is the right wind.” I realize it might feel overwhelming … you could choose to dedicate your life to literally anything. But what is most important of all, to you? To love? To learn? To teach? To create? To explore? To thrive? To help those in need?

Step 2: Go Broad

“Eleven lifetimes” from SMBC-comics.com

I think there’s value in the venerable self-help exercise of making a list of at least 100 life goals. Go big, be whimsical, and include everything. Life is long, and human beings are not natural specialists. The “eleven lifetimes” comic strip illustrates this idea well.

In high school I had a food service job that involved working at various fairs and festivals around the Bay Area. This was before I could drive, so I got rides from my boss, and sometimes we would talk about life and philosophy. At one point he asked me what I wanted to do in life, and I listed off a grandiose list of ambitions (to record music, to write novels, to explore and write about spiritual ideas) that made him chuckle. His dismissiveness stung (even though he wasn’t being cruel — he was just being a grown-up, and maybe feeling a little grumpy about his own station in life at the time).

Now, later in life, I’m glad I hung on to all of those hopes and ambitions, and continue to pursue them, and constantly come up with new ones! I’ve accomplished so much already, and I’ve likely got decades ahead of me. For most people reading this, life will be long, and we need a BIG LIST to keep it interesting all the way through.

If you’re having trouble with Step 1, you could start with Step 2. Make a giant list of goals and dreams, and see what themes emerge (particularly, what goes beyond wish fulfillment, and encompasses contribution).

Step 3: One Damn Thing At A Time

The “new” part of the approach (to me) is this: pick a single goal to focus on, define “success” in specific terms, and give yourself a deadline, and consequences for success or failure.

To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time. – Leonard Bernstein

This isn’t a new idea, but I resisted it for years. Too much of my identity was attached to doing many different things, and I didn’t want to “narrow my options.”

What “clicked” for me was the deadline bit. Having an “end-point” for a particular goal would allow me to reevaluate my priorities at that time. Succeed or fail, I could choose to keep my efforts in the same field, or change course if that felt right. Picking one goal, with a deadline, wouldn’t limit my options — it would simply focus my efforts for a period of time.

I think this is an important distinction — focusing your efforts for a period of time is not the same as giving up your side interests forever. Steve Martin’s life is a good example of this. He credits much of his success to diligence and focus, to saying “no” to distractions and side projects. By focusing on one thing at a time, Steve Martin has mastered comedy, the banjo, movie-making, and writing. Having a primary focus is especially important for the multi-class character/Renaissance man/polymath type. If we don’t willfully limit our pursuits, we tend to spread ourselves to thin and make no progress whatsoever.

So how to pick the right goal? (Out of your list of 100, or out of thin air?)

What, if you accomplished it, would significantly change your life (and/or your family, your business, your community, etc.) for the better? What would make a real difference?

What are you hungry for? What do you really want?

What would make you feel incredibly proud if you pulled it off — changing your self-image for the better?

There are many ways to approach the question — but the most important factor is that you have strong feelings about the goal you choose — it should be really important to you (even if it’s something nobody else cares about).

These feelings should include some fear or trepidation. That’s a good indication you’ve picked something realistic (you can actually imagine it happening) but also difficult enough to achieve that some discomfort, frustration, and possibly failure is ahead of you.

Step 4: Setting Up The Details

How much time you give yourself to reach your goal? Following Bernstein’s advice, the best answer is not quite enough. So far my own deadlines have been from three to six months out. Shorter might not give me enough time to be thorough, while longer might increase the risk of losing focus. While the deadline should depend on the size of your project and the amount of time you can realistically dedicate to pursuing your goal, it’s good to create a little pressure.

Take some time to concretely define your goal so you’ll know if you’ve succeeded or not. You may or may not want to include some kind of “zero-sum” component (winning something, getting to a particular point on a ranked list, getting selected in some way). Choosing a zero-sum component allows you to measure yourself against your peers, which you may or may not want to do. If you choose a non-zero-sum goal, like completing a project or quitting smoking, you’ll be competing only against yourself (or parts of yourself … motivational substructures … lazy you vs. diligent you … today you vs. tomorrow you).

Define your goal in a way that succeeding will do no harm. For example, if you want to lose fat, it might be better to define your goal in terms of waist size instead of overall body weight. Muscle weighs more than fat, so you might lose weight by working out less or using lighter weights. You could reach your body weight goal, but end up fatter and less strong. Not good!

Don’t make your goal trying to control the actions of specific people. That way lies madness.

Set up some consequences for success and failure. I prefer life-affirming consequences that do no harm. Some consequences I’ve listed for failing to meet my goal include no alcohol for a period of time, getting up earlier for a period of time, taking a class to increase my understanding of the subject matter, and so forth. In other words “positive discipline.” On the “rewards” side I generally pick simple indulgences (treats, gadgets, games, etc.). I try not to pick anything too complicated (like an extended trip) because planning that can become its own giant project. A writer friend of mine treats herself to a pedicure every time she gets something published. Reinforce the win.

In some cases you might not need any additional motivation. If you are seriously ill and your goal to to recover your health, then failure might equal death. But you should still give yourself something on the reward side if you recover your health. Of course success is always a reward in itself, but you need to hammer the point home (in your own mind). You planned, you worked, and you succeeded. Don’t just take it in stride — do something to acknowledge and reinforce the success.

Sometimes public shame can serve as a powerful motivation to stay on course. That doesn’t really work for me; I rarely feel ashamed unless I’ve done something inconsiderate and hurt someone’s feelings. If I release a track or a blog post and it flops, I just go write another one and try to do better. I think it’s a combination of being a little older, and also having the shame burned out of me from a few bad reviews/mean critics early in my music career. I just don’t care as much what people think. I still care, but not enough to actually motivate me. For me, motivation needs to be intrinsic.

Finally I ask myself a few questions about the goal:

Question #1 is “Why?”
Why exactly am I pursuing this goal? How exactly does it relate to my life purpose? What emotional need will reaching this goal satisfy?

Question #2 is “What is my strategy?”
In a few sentences, what is my strategy for achieving this goal? What do I need to learn? What work do I need to do? Whose help do I need to enlist? What are the general steps?

Question #3 is “What are my doubts and demons?”
Writing down my doubts, nagging insecurities, and petty feelings helps me see them for what they are. If you don’t address these feelings they can drain your energy, distract you, or even stop you cold. For my current goal, one entry in this section read “<acquaintance> achieved this first.” As soon as I wrote it down, the envy dissipated and I felt embarrassed at the petty sentiment. And it lost its power.

Question #4 is “What are the reasons to keep going?”
This is where you get to write a response to Question #3. Remind yourself of the good that achieving your goal might do, both for yourself and others. If you keep at it, and don’t give up, you might truly create something of worth, or inspire someone, or even save someone’s life. You might change your life circumstances for the better. You might create new possibilities for your family and friends and community.

Step 5: Staying on Course

You might realistically get through steps 1-4 in an hour, though it could just as easily take you a whole day. Either way, steps 1-4 are fairly easy. Step 5, doing the work and staying on track, is hard.

To stay on course, you need to:

  • have the right attitude
  • know what to share and what to keep secret
  • track your progress
  • use a quota system
  • have a time and place to work
  • find a way to handle the less fun bits
  • have a good system for managing everything else

Attitude

What’s the right attitude to have towards your goal? Though it might sound counterintuitive, I think non-attachment is important. By this I mean that you should not make your happiness conditional on success. You should give yourself permission to be happy regardless of your circumstances. In other words you should allow yourself to be unconditionally happy, even if you fail.

This is just part of being a reasonably enlightened person. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be walking around with a grin on your face all the time, or in a constant state of euphoria. It just means that if you encounter an obstacle in life (bad weather, getting sick, poverty, someone being mean, someone being incompetent, your own stupidity or poor planning, etc.), you are under no obligation to feel bad about it. Your happiness does not need to be connected to external events, including success or failure at your own goal.

This is the psychedelic realization. From the linked post:

The important thing to realize is that we’re all engaged in what is essentially trying to get our neurons to fire the right chemicals so that we feel good.  It’s the way we’re built — there’s nothing we can do to change this.  It’s what human motivation is.  So whether we’re trying to add more zeroes to the number in our bank account, or write a hit song, or make and raise children, or get a high score in Guitar Hero, or get more Twitter followers, or remodel our kitchen, or stop global warming, or eat only organic food, or achieve “enlightenment,” or seduce a beautiful person, or become a crime lord, or become a virtual crime lord, it’s all essentially the same thing — we’re trying to feel good.

I just quoted myself. Definitely a warning sign for clinical narcissism. But you didn’t have to click through!

Gratitude is also important. Allow yourself to feel grateful for what you already have. Maybe you’re broke and working in obscurity, but you’re young and healthy. Don’t take that for granted. Even if you’re in poor health, with no money, no friends, no connections, and no prospects, you’re alive and you have an immensely powerful tool at your disposal (a human brain). Consider yourself blessed, and move forward.

There should be some joy and excitement in the pursuit of your goal. If there’s no fun in it, why did you pick it? There should be a spark there!

You’ll need fortitude of spirit, because there will be obstacles and you’ll sometimes want to give up. Re-read your answer to Question #4 (“What are the reasons to keep going?”) to bolster your spirits and renew your determination.

You’ll need some faith, because sometimes cold logic will tell you that reaching your goal is impossible. Things are impossible until someone pulls it off, and then everyone knew that it was only a matter of time.

You’ll need a willingness to do a great deal of work, often without compensation or recognition.

Finally you should pursue your goal with love. Love of life, love of other people, and love of the work.

What to share and what to keep secret

In my last post I linked to the Derek Sivers TED video “Keep Your Goals to Yourself“. Talking about your goal makes you feel, to some extent, like you already accomplished it. You’re more likely to lose steam and quit.

Also, doesn’t it sound like more fun to have a “secret project” that only you know about?

If you keep your goal a secret, you are less likely to experience sabotage attempts from people close to you who may feel threatened by your goal. They may wrongly feel that your changing behavior is a judgement against them. But if they don’t know about your goal, they can’t sabotage you, or chide you, or talk you out of it, or gripe about how you’re less fun because of it, or even prematurely congratulate you. Take the social equation out it.

Almost always, you’ll need to enlist the help of others in terms of achieving your goal. So how do you do this, and still keep your goal a secret? Instead of making it about you and your goal, appeal to their self interest instead. What’s in it for them? People generally like to help each other out, so don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. But make it worth their time and effort. Focus on helping them achieve their aims in some way, and leave the details of your own aspirations out of the transaction.

You don’t need to keep your behavior secret. People close to you will notice what you’re doing, and the smart ones will figure out where you’re going with it. That’s fine. But as much as possible, you should keep your goal to yourself. Don’t give it away — own it.

Track your progress

At some regular interval, check in with yourself and record your progress towards your goal. What have you accomplished to date? Is your strategy working or do you need to change course?

I like to write a short weekly update re: my progress — just a line or two. It keeps me honest, it keeps me focused, and it helps me think about what the next chunk of work looks like.

What you are ultimately tracking is the transformation of thought into reality. It’s magic via the mundane.

Use a quota system

I’ve written about quotas before. A relatively easy-to-hit quota will keep you moving in the right direction, and before you know it you’ll have accomplished a great deal. If you manage to write one page a day for a year, you’ve got a first draft of a novel. You might organize your quota in terms of work produced, or time worked (the former guarantees output, but the latter allows for other obligations). I prefer a daily “time worked” quota, with a day or two off every week. I don’t think the exact details matter, as long as the quota gives you structure and helps you prioritize your “life’s work” over your other obligations (earning money, doing chores, whatever).

The thing about a quota system is that it forces you to answer the question “Do you enjoy the work?” Remember — if you succeed, the reward is more of the same job.

If you find it incredibly difficult to sit down every day and work towards your goal, then either you have the wrong goal, or you have the wrong strategy. The work itself needs to be sustainable. This is your life — you shouldn’t spend it doing something you don’t enjoy doing.

I’m not saying that the work should be easy, or that we can’t learn to like something. Cal Newport has an entire blog about how the most worthwhile work is often somewhat uncomfortable, because it demands intense concentration and a high expenditure of mental energy.

At the same time, there should be a feeling that the work suits you, even if your skills aren’t where you want them to be. Ira Glass has a great quote on this subject — our taste often precedes our skill level by many years:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Have a time and place to work

A simple idea, but important. When and where are you going to do the work?

I work towards my primary goal in the mornings, five days a week, in my home office at my stand-up desk. I have a relatively quiet environment and all the tools I need.

Much of my work environment I built with my own hands (I put in a cork floor to soften the sound in the room, I modified my desk, and so on). There’s nothing fancy about my workspace, but it’s just the way I want it, and organized for maximum efficiency.

Organize your workspace so that it works for you, and find a regular time to use it.

Find a way to handle the less fun bits

Every career (and the pursuit of any goal) will have aspects that are less fun. These things just come with the territory. I run a record label, but I find the process of marketing music to be difficult and confusing. I do it anyway, and try to get better at it. Marketing music is in no way my calling, but in almost every other way I’m well suited to run a label (selecting music, working with artists, managing content, and tracking and reporting royalties all come very easily).

At the same time, my business partner (Spesh) and I try to divide up the label tasks so that we’re both doing the tasks that we’re best suited for. We’re more effective that way, and our jobs are more fun.

If you want to lose weight, you’ll probably need to adjust your way of eating, and that may cause some temporary discomfort. For example, you may experience withdrawal symptoms if you sharply reduce your sugar intake.

But long-term, you should find a diet that supports your health and is also enjoyable. If you just love cupcakes, don’t cut them out of your diet entirely. Don’t make mental deals with yourself that you can’t keep — make a deal you can live with.

There are three basic ways to deal with the less savory tasks required to achieve your goal:

  • Outsource — get someone else to do it (pay them or trade work)
  • Minimize/reduce — test and see what happens if you don’t do that part of the work, or do less of it (are there negative consequences?)
  • Just start — once you get started, your momentum will keep you going

Don’t worry if you don’t always feel passionate about doing all of the work. That doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes achieve your goal.

Have a good system for managing everything else

Picking a primary goal doesn’t mean that your other responsibilities in life will suddenly go away. We all have obligations, and we’re all pulled in multiple directions.

Having a good system to manage tasks, inboxes, and projects is essential to keeping order in your life. David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a great system. The GTD system aims to achieve a “mind like water” for the user. If you can trust your system for tracking tasks, messages, obligations, and scheduling, then your mind will be free to explore more creative territory.

For some, this last point might be an even better starting place than Step 1.

My Own Goals and Results

I was originally going to write about the details of how this system has worked for me so far, but this post has gotten too long. I’ll say that I’ve had one major success, and I’m close to a deadline for a second major goal (at this point I don’t know if I’ll succeed or not).

Please feel free to share your own thoughts below, but don’t tell me what your goal is!

13 responses to “How to Discover Your Life Purpose, Set a Primary Goal, and Stay On Track

  1. good post JD. if i may make a suggestion you could read this book The Artist Way its about creativity and how to make creative processing work.

  2. Wow, this is what I’d call an excellent in-depth article. Thanks a lot for creating and sharing this, JD!

    Three comments/questions from me:

    1. The “zero-sum” component: I’m personally extremely wary of measurements like these, as they elude our control. Even if we produce excellent work, we might still not get the reward.

    2. “Time worked” quota: If I understand you right, you made a switch from the “product quota” (i.e. one song per week) to a time-based quota. Would you mind explaining why? (I suspect it’s because of easier scheduling, but I’d still be interested to know. I find myself switching between the two as well, but with a slight preference for a time-based quota. It could be interesting to combine it with a tight project deadline, though, as outlined in your post. My biggest problem when it comes to this is probably accountability.)

    3. Your writing is very enjoyable to read. Not only this article, but everything else I’ve seen from you so far. The one thing I’d suggest to improve? Headlines! They are useful and appropriate as they are, but could be a bit more engaging and more interesting, even if it’s just for marketing considerations. I struggle with that myself, but a great headlines draws more readers in – and, honestly, content this good should get seen by as many people as possible!

    Well, I guess that’s it for today. Thanks again and have a marvelous weekend! :)

    • Great questions Fabian …
      1. I think the zero-sum question comes back to not attaching your self-worth to goal success or failure. I had a recent goal of hitting the Beatport Top 100 Release sales chart (a zero-sum goal). I manged to hit it, but if I hadn’t it, I wouldn’t feel like the music was any less worthy. Choosing a zero-sum goal helped me focus on artwork, marketing, and other ways to connect the music with the audience. Also in this case I wanted a very clear, definable result, and the zero-sum component provided this.

      At the same time I think it’s perfectly legitimate to choose only non-zero-sum goals and essentially only compete against yourself.

      2. I would actually prefer an output quota, but at the moment some hard schedule limitations don’t allow that (my daughter’s school ends at 3:30, so that’s often the end of my productive workday unless we can make other arrangements). Also, when I work at night, my work usually isn’t as good, so that’s not a good option. So at the moment the “time worked” quota is a better fit.

      3. Headlines are hard! But I’ll try to make them more interesting, while also hopefully indicating what the post is about.

  3. Alright, that’s definitely a good point for zero-sum goals: To use them as a motivator for some of the less pleasant tasks (say, increased marketing), but don’t get too attached to them.

    Also, thanks for clarifying on the quotas. My own preference for time-based quotas stems from the intent to lower the work pressure: All I have to free up is “x” amount of time to do nothing but write, and during that time I can work freely. This generally feels better than being obligated to finish a new article everyday, even though that’s certainly a matter of taste.

  4. Here’s a good Pavlina post that gets into some territory I didn’t cover — length of time commitments to a new direction. The “5-Year commitment” could be helpful for spanning the gap between Life Purpose and a specific concrete goal.
    http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2012/11/5-year-commitments/

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  11. Reblogged this on New Z and commented:
    :-)

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